Food Styling with Steve & Malina
Before we move over to food styling, we did have some questions for Melina, actually for both of you, with regard to food styling. The main one is, from a couple of different people, Narrow Road especially, how do you become a food stylist? Specifically are there courses you have to take or do you have to actually get certified?
I am not certified, I don't think there's such a thing as a certified food stylist. I started out as a chef. I've been a chef, I'm still currently a chef, I've been a private chef for 30 years. For me it just evolved. I started recipe testing for Sam's Club and then it started evolving into, they said "well could you just style it" and so I just started styling stuff for their website and I actually realized I liked it, more than just doing the food part of it. So, it just evolved from there and then I started working with other photographers and I've always had props, because I've been a chef and I like to entertain and I though ever day's a celebration and ...
why not use your beautiful dishes and your silverware all year round instead of just the two times a year that you do it? So I feel like life if special, celebrate every day and just, I've always collected stuff so it's something I've done since I was a teenager. Then it just kind of evolved, doing props and my background of being a chef and collecting things, it just happened for me. It's just one of those things, it's just I wanted to do it and it just, it's worked out.
And I have lunch with food stylists when I go to other, like I was in Chicago and New York the last month and I had lunch with food stylists who were there so when I work there I will have a relationship with food stylists. Every single time they tell me their story it's always by accident. No one's like, I'm going to grow up and be a food stylist. I'm gonna be a chef first and then I'm just gonna jump, it's always, they get sucked into a job and then that job leads them into, potentially, oh we need, our assistant didn't show up and we need an assistant. So you become an assistant, typically, and then you make that kinda, tough, eventually once you really get your feet on the ground you can make a transition to being pro food stylist. But it's always, you just kind of you fall into it.
Yeah. That's what happened for me.
And especially being a prop stylist, I don't know, even how, because most people don't even know, if they're not in photography, they're not even familiar with what that is or what, so being both is extremely helpful.
I love doing both. Because sometimes I get hired to do one or the other or both. And I also do vignettes of rooms too, I'll do like furniture styling too.
Yeah, she does some really good architectural stuff where she sets up scenes.
Yeah. So, I love it and I love all aspects of it but that doesn't mean you can't be a stylist if you just do one niche of it. It's so broad.
And you can do motion, you can go into motion there's a lot of food stylists who specialize in motion and that's a big part of it in LA and New York. It's not as exacting because they tend to just do a pan and the director's just like "well that's enough just step away from that, you're fine." So it's a different type of food styling sometimes. With food you're seeing every little thing so it's a really exacting science. I've done a photoshoot where we had to, I was styling and it was a 3D commercial, they were harvesting skins for three dimensional objects in a CGI commercial. And you had to find produce that was perfect on all sides which isn't possible, so, they had a little post work to do but to find a pineapple that doesn't have any blemishes on any side, can't do it. I mean, shopping for produce, as she'll attest, is one of the hardest things. You don't know until you do it and you're looking for that perfect banana and you're like, I mean, when I go shopping I'm already Photoshopping in my head, when I see a banana, I already have the cloning tool in my brain, can I clone that, is that annoying spot for that blemish? So I'm sort of post-producing when I'm shopping.
Another thing to keep in mind too, when you do grocery shop, keep in mind where you shop and the best places that you can find certain produce and certain times of the year. There's certain grocery stores that I think are better than others. So just kind of have that in your mind like, you know you can go to this place and get great herbs or this store has better variety of exotic vegetables. Like an Asian store you want to find cool coconuts or mangoes or things that you can't find at the regular store. So just kinda keep that in mind. Just, on your days off go to different stores and see what people have. If there's a new store that opens go and check it out.
And get to know the people who work there
Like the butcher
Exactly, because then people will know you and they'll know what you want and you just, you have that relationship and it's really helpful. And then they can order stuff for you. So that's something to keep in mind. You can also grow your own things too, if you have that option.
Are we able, can we do a quick loop around?
Yeah, let me just, one more question while we're still at the prop wall is where do people start? If you're just beginning what are the must have, essential props that you would recommend, that are gonna be the most versatile?
Wood surfaces, linens are easy to come by. So if you have a wood surface and you have a linen, and you have a few glasses around your house already, you've got enough to make a few images. A lot of people have props in their home because they eat it, I mean, you have dishes. So start with that. You don't have to go out and just splurge. I mean if you're really beginning in food photography and you don't want to go crazy on acquiring a bunch of stuff start with the stuff you have at home. When I was younger I would just take stuff that I had in my house and just practice, and it looked awful, but every step you take just kind of gradually. But as far as acquiring stuff, the linens are probably the cheapest way to go instead of investing in these big wooden surfaces. If you see one on the side of the road, especially picnic tables, get it and then call me. And then I'll pick it up, because picnic tables are expensive, but they're gold. If they're aged and they're patina'd, oh man. I met with a family and we're having a picnic and I just want to kinda unscrew the top and just run off with it. Why is there just two chairs here? But, so yeah, so we have, this is our wall of props. I've also got a little bit of grip gear and just some random bottles that I've shot in the past so it's almost a storage area at this point. Are we able to go around, let's go around and take a look at the kitchen area. This is a unique kitchen and sorry for those of you, there's going to be some blocked views here. Basically, our kitchen is very industrial. When you go into some studios it's almost like a home kitchen where you have the electric, or gas, home range, there's just a lot of traditional kitchens in studios. I really wanted to have, I came from a chef background, so I wanted to have very industrial, there's a lot of studios that have these, big fridges, big freezers, room to work, room to breathe. We use induction burners, we use portable gas burners, because there's no gas coming into the studio, which will drive food stylists crazy but we do have burners for all that control that are gas. We have all, we have ice cream machines, juicers, mixers, you never know, you don't want to have your food stylist bringing a lot of heavy electric equipment. You want them to have, they're going to have their kit, which is just tweezers and all kinds of stuff that you'll kind of go through briefly. But we want to have everything here ready to go. So it's a very clean, almost sterile, industrial space that kinda lends itself well to focusing on what's in front of you but we're not short of tools and a lot of my styling equipment that I use personally is up on that shelf. And yeah, it's a fun thing to work, we have a rolling cart with a cutting board that we can kinda just swoop over to the studio and bring it to set really easily. That's it. Questions on food styling and kitchen, studio kitchens, anything from the internet?
I can add something to that too.
Okay, please do.
It's also good to have your situation like where you're setting up your styling station, very efficient and very easy to work with, not really cluttery and just kind of organized, because sometimes the shoots, you have to do a lot of shoots in one day, and so you want to be able to kind of, see the next shot that you're doing. Like working on the first shot and then doing the next shot, and then seeing. So you're always a shot ahead. So you want to just have everything organized. I can mentally organize it because I've been around food for so long and food is very second nature to me. But just being very organized and very methodical if it means taking notes or doing some of that beforehand, so that when something happens, like you said, sometimes can go wrong and you have to be able to problem solve right away so it's important to be prepared. So you have, like, right now we're going to do some toast so I have several different pieces of toast just, because you just never know.
Yeah, there's two terms you'll hear a lot mise en place, which is just a French term for
For having everything laid out ready to go. Ahead of time, just being ready.
Being ready, yeah.
And hero, you'll hear hero a lot which is just picking the perfect, going through, like when we do cereal shoots you have to go through with tweezers like 20 boxes of cereal finding perfect flakes that curl up a little bit and they're the perfect size and you have to get like 100 of those, at least sometimes, so that can be tedious. There's a lot of tedious work in food styling but it's very exacting. Pastry chefs make great food stylists. Having that background really helps because it's very exacting.
Very detailed, yeah. You have to have a lot of patience and give yourself enough time to do it all. Just use your time efficiently when you're working, so get used to that, because it can be really quick paced. And depending on the photographer you're working with, every photographer is very different, some are easier to work with, some are not as easy to work with, and I work very collaboratively with the photographer, we work together, so that really helps come out, make a beautiful project.
Another question for you. So a lot of people may not have that chef background that you have and Aaron Gabriel says, "What if you want to practice food photography but you can't cook, like, at all," she says But does that change things if you don't have that chef background?
Yeah, I've met with food stylists who no, there's really good ones who have a pastry background and a food background and then there's some that have absolutely no cooking experience at all and they learn how to food style before they learn how to cook. It's kind of a bizarre path. But there are some who are just either graphic artists or art, they understand visually what to achieve and they look at food styling as sculpting as opposed to cooking. So it's just an art project to them. So they're very, it's a really interesting take on it. But if you're doing it alone, go to a bakery and find perfect macaroons, you've got people food styling already for you and you just go through and select heroes. Or you can work with a food stylist because food stylists are always looking for test material or they want to work with a photographer for the first time to see if they work together well. So there's food stylist in the city that you're in more likely than not, who would love to work with you so you just invite them over, you pay for the food and you just enjoy and afternoon of just nailing four really good shots, or something like that. Collaborative efforts always add to what you're trying to do as opposed to trying to do it all yourself.
You can also buy pre, there's a lot of pre-made stuff too. Sometimes I do buy pre-made stuff if there's not enough in the budget and it's going to take me making three cakes like just, the cake itself. And I will buy pre-made cakes and frost them.
I love frozen pancakes. Frozen pancakes are all heroes. Have you ever opened the box of frozen pancakes? I have some in the fridge right now for tomorrow, and they're perfect. I don't know what, they cut them with scissors just to get the perfect shaping. Styling on your own, working with a stylist is crucial but you sometimes have to do it on your own. There will be times when I do it on my own but it's almost always for packaging where it's just a candy bar where I have to make the top look awesome again. But yeah, the business side of food photography, they'll all have day rates that range anywhere from 400 to two grand probably in, I mean, a lot of the New York stylists are about 1200, give or take, in that range. They have day rates that they work within.
In New York they're usually 1200 per day times two, because they'll charge an extra day for prep
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. If it's a full, and they have a lot of shopping to do, they have a lot of prep to do, so that adds up, especially in a city, in New York, in Seattle it's 900 to 11, somewhere in there, but they, when you're testing they don't charge. They have to make a living too so it's really important to respect their time and not have photo shoot, test shoot after test shoot after test shoot. But to keep it to a minimum and really focus on that day and create some really good art together. Like I said, styling is just a crucial, when I worked, I was doing a lot of styling myself, and when I worked with Melina and worked with one other stylist in the city it was like night and day how the food looks on the plate. Because they're only focused on just the food and you're only focused on all the details that are coming through on the camera. And when that happens you start to notice things you start to find out, oh, you get really picky like the blueberry doesn't, you know the little things that come out of the blueberry aren't perfect and we don't want to fix that in post, we have to go find, so really, focus is just crucial. When you're able to really focus, that's why food stylists really key.
That's actually a good point though you always want to make sure that when you are on set, so clean up all the little crumbs, all the little imperfections, all the smudges, so that it's easier for them, in post, to not have so much work to do.
I do have a question. I live in a very small town, less than 20,000 people, and we have one product photographer, no food photographers, no stylists, do you think it's okay to style food and photograph while learning all at the same time? I do have a pastry experience, I am a past chef and,
Yeah, yeah, yeah. You can be in demand, as a food stylist slash photographer, there are husband and wife teams that work as food stylist photographer teams there are photographers who do all of the food styling always themselves. Because food styling, when you're taking a picture of a plate of food, how that food looks, that's part of your style, so you tend to work with stylists who match your style really well but if you do it yourself you can have a lot of control over how the food looks, which is just as important, it's like an image, it's like a set within a set. You're making the food look a certain way for a reason and that reason is to fit within your style or the client's demands, which is more often the case on a commercial shoot. But you can do it, there's no question. There's a book everybody recommends, and I highly recommend it because she's an amazing woman, Deloris Custer, "Food Styling." And I don't know if it's in full print right now but you can get it, you can find it. I have a copy on my shelf and it just goes through everything you could possibly want to know. And you go through a month of training and read it and really practice and make the mistakes and I always make mistakes in food styling, I don't know everything about it. But yeah, just practice and there's no question. Especially if you have the food background to start out. So hopefully that answers your question.
Just use your iPhone. Just take it and do different angles of the food that you do just so you can get a feel for it and you can move stuff around on the surface. It's just really playing around with it and just having fun with it
And mostly critique myself?
Exactly. And then you have a reference that you can look at later, like in a month, and go, "I should have done this" and learn from what you do.
And that's the biggest thing is to learn because it's time sensitive. Once food hits, you have to learn how to put mock ups on set that aren't the real food, so you have non-heroes,
A stand in
Stand ins, that you can adjust the lighting to so that when the food comes out, and especially important when you're working by yourself, is that it's ready to shoot.
Yeah, swap it out. But you gotta make sure that if it's in that spot you need to mark it so that you can put it exactly where that spot is. Because some photographers are very very specific, you took a long time to get that specific spot so it's really important to mark it with like fake ice cubes, or
Yeah, I use little weights that just mark the corners of whatever you're doing so that you can just put it right back in
And it's faster too. So you're not playing with that.